An unprecedented number of Mexicans have received international recognition over the past year for their courageous work on behalf of migrants, workers, and the millions of victims of the country’s spiraling violence, institutional decomposition and appalling inequality.

Most recently, Mexican poet Javier Sicilia, received a nod from TIME Magazine, which proclaimed that “the protester” was the 2011 “person of the year.”

Below, we profile some of these movement leaders, artists, grass roots organizers, labor leaders, and clergy people who are working in the front trenches of the struggle for human rights. Through them we can hear the voices of millions more Mexicans crying out for justice and for the very soul of their nation.

They urge us to respond to the frightening militarization of Mexico, the hyper-exploitation of the poor, indigenous, and working classes; and the infuriating impunity enjoyed by well-connected and ruling-class criminals. They embody the struggle to end the profound injustice — both economic and legal — at the root of the murderous crime wave sweeping the country.

These eight distinguished advocates have been recognized because the Mexican government has failed to respond to a growing national emergency. As Mexico’s crisis deepens, these patriots have gone abroad to sound an urgent alarm — amplified by the human rights, labor, and cultural groups who invited them — that Mexico is at the breaking point.

These are the kinds of Mexicans that President Obama, the U.S. Congress, the media, the American public, and philanthropic foundations should be listening to and taking their cues from. These are the voices of those who have lived the tragic consequences of bad bi-national policies — so unlike President Calderon and his supporters north of the border who echo the hollow victories of the drug war and repeat market based delusions of success in the face of NAFTA’s bitter harvest.

The need for profound systemic changes on both sides of the border is painfully clear. 50 thousand Mexicans have died since President Calderón escalated the drug war. Millions are displaced by the economic disaster of “free trade.” In Mexico, as in the United States, ultra-rich plutocrats have hijacked the political system and are trying to foreclose on a dignified future for the poor and middle classes.

We need intelligent strategies and urgent action to end the “war on drugs,” level the economic playing field, and to make real our democratic aspirations on both side of the border. We must not let the inheritance of Mexico’s NAFTA generation be a disintegrating society where neither jobs nor educational opportunities exist for an expanding and politically repressed underclass.

In 2012, both Mexico and the United States will hold presidential elections. These elections, while no doubt important, won’t bring the kind of deep changes needed in both countries. Such change and the movement necessary to make it happen must be driven from below — by those who bear the greatest burdens of inequality and have the most to gain by shattering the toxic status quo.

During 2011 movements led by victims of violence and those who are alienated from politics as usual have broken through the discourse of silence, altered the political landscape, and brought calls for revolutionary change back into view in both our countries.

The new struggle for fundamental reform is just getting underway and will take many forms, some of them unpredictable. But you can be sure that, as resistance to war and inequality grows on both sides of the border, the Mexicans leaders profiled below will be on its frontlines. They’ll join their voices together with millions more on both sides of our shared border.

  • Abel Barrera, an anthropologist and human rights defender of indigenous and rural communities, who founded the respected and successful NGO Tlachinolan in the southern and impoverished state of Guerrero, was honored by the RFK Center for Justice and Human Rights;
  • Javier Sicilia, a leader of the Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity, was awarded a “people’s choice” human rights prize by Global Exchange; The movement is led the victims of the “drug war”. He was also profiled in TIME Magazine’s 2011 Person of the Year issue.
  • Gael Garcia, a well-known Mexican actor, and AMBULANTE, an organization he co-founded, headlined the Washington Office on Latin America’s (WOLA) annual gala in recognition for his passionate and committed work to give visibility to the plight of migrants who undertake the perilous journey north and to the organization’s work to promote documentaries and to bring these films to the Mexican population;
  • Father Pedro Pantoja received the Letelier–Moffitt International Human Rights Award from the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC on behalf of Bethlehem, the Migrants’ Shelter of Saltillo, for its work to protect migrants in Mexico from kidnapping, extortion, sexual abuse, and murder — courageously challenging organized crime and corrupt public officials.
  • Marta Ojeda, a long time maquiladora activist, was saluted by the New York Radio Festival and received an award for her organization, the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras and “La Frontera,” a documentary investigation of organized crime, violence and impunity and injustice along the Mexico-U.S. border; Marta connects the dots between the neoliberal policies, economic dislocation, arms industries, money laundering corruption, and impunity that have submerged Mexico in a deep crisis.
  • Napoleon Gómez Urrutia is the president of Mexico’s mine workers union. He received the AFL-CIO Kirkland Award in recognition of his brave work, which included accusing the Mexican government of industrial homicide following a mine explosion that killed 65 miners — and whose bodies remain buried. The government retaliated with bogus charges, and he has been forced into de facto exile in Canada.
  • Sister Consuelo Morales, who received the Human Rights Watch’s Alison Des Forges Award for her work in Mexico to defend victims of human rights violations and hold their abusers accountable. She has worked with indigenous communities and street children, and she founded Citizens in Support of Human Rights (CAHDAC) in her native Monterrey.
  • Tita Radilla was granted an award by Peace Brigades International and the Alliance for Lawyers at Risk for her relentless struggle for human rights.She has worked for more than 30 years with the Association of Relatives of Disappeared and Victims of Human Rights Violations (AFADEM), demanding justice for the victims of enforced disappearance in Mexico.

Ted Lewis directs the Mexico Program of Global Exchange. Manuel Perez-Rocha is an Institute for Policy Studies associate fellow.
An earlier version of this post ran on Global Exchange’s blog.

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